Hypertextual antimony contra postmodernist discourse claims
October 24, 2005 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Characterizing a Fogbank. A prominent analytic philosopher discusses whether postmodernism is worth taking seriously.
posted by painquale (97 comments total)
The kid will be ok if he (1) leaves home, (2) doesn't go to the same school where his dad teaches, (3) realizes that after graduation post anything doesn't mean crap and problably doesn't that before he graduates, (4) meets some post-modern babes (5) joins the post-modern army.
posted by Postroad at 1:49 PM on October 24, 2005

i'm on step 3; (a) is there an instruction manual for step 4, and (b) is step 5 mandatory?
posted by spiderwire at 2:12 PM on October 24, 2005

man... i wonder if a post-modern army is really... a post-army... which is a tar'rist!!!!

i wonder what post-terrorism looks like.
posted by trinarian at 2:19 PM on October 24, 2005

[this is good]
posted by Kwantsar at 2:33 PM on October 24, 2005

Just remember that it's turtles all the way down and everything will be fine.
posted by caddis at 2:44 PM on October 24, 2005

As a Philosophy BA student (now grad student in Art), I can attest that you find turgid, incomprehensible jargon-laden prose on both sides of the analytic / continental divide. Analytic flights of fancy can be just as groundless, only cloaked in the mantle of super- and sub-scripted numerals and letters.

I honestly think, as someone who has discovered serious feet of clay in postmodern writers, that de Rose doesn't do much heavy lifting at all. He calls out philosophical heavyweights like Stanley Fish (who?) for possibly, maybe, might be meaning that the laws of nature aren't objectively real. When he can't make that case, he claims that postmodern thinkers (or, just Stanley Fish) are boring because they claim that scientific theories can change. But if they are holding the stronger claim, his counter-claim is 'well, that's crazy. Of course, the world is real.'

A scintillating debate. I really should have stopped reading when he continued to claim that he doesn't read postmodern philosophy. That's a strong methodology.

I will add that it shouldn't be too hard for him to uncover examples like phrenology or the Tuskegee Institute syphillis study to begin to understand what a statement like 'science is socially constructed' could mean. I hate overblown meaningless postmodern philosophy as much as anyone (I'm an art student, so I get quite a good dose of it), but he distorts the postmodern claims into an either-or that's meaningless : that either 1) science theories change with new knowledge or 2) there's no such thing as objectivity of any kind.

One of his comment posters comes close to clueing him in to what I think the point of 'science is socially constructed' might be : that science is not immune to social attitudes. Political and cultural ideologies influence what is studied in science, sometimes with deleterious effects (i.e. again phrenology, Tusekegee syphillis study, etc.).
posted by Slothrop at 2:49 PM on October 24, 2005

I wish I'd thought to call myself "posthobgoblin".
posted by Hobgoblin at 2:50 PM on October 24, 2005

Please post $5 post-haste, and that screen name can be yours, poster!
posted by FYKshun at 2:58 PM on October 24, 2005

...Stanley Fish (who?)

Wow. Suddenly I feel very old.
posted by Haruspex at 3:03 PM on October 24, 2005

You know, as an undergraduate science student I always found that scientists were more willing to accept the sociological basis of their work than the Lynn Cheney-esque defenders of so-called classical thought. Somebody should slap this guy with a dog-eared copy of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As Slothrop said, the statement "science has a socilogical basis" is not the same as saying "science has only a sociological basis" or "there is no truth."
posted by allen.spaulding at 3:03 PM on October 24, 2005

Slothrop's pretty much bang on. Why attack Derrida for being completely ignorant of science and not "language of the mind!" Fodor? Why Lacan and not "modern-day pineal gland" Chisholm? I'm not a particular fan of any of those four, but the same kind of sloppy, anti-science approach he accuses Derrida and Lacan of is rampant in analytic philosophy.

Slothrop> Fish was a big guy in introducing post-modernism in North America. He runs the English department down at Duke these days, if I'm not mistaken. His views are pretty ludicrous, but his job has basically been "straw-man" ever since de Man died.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:11 PM on October 24, 2005

...Stanley Fish (who?)

Well, there goes your credibility.
posted by languagehat at 3:12 PM on October 24, 2005

To be fair, Fish is a pretty lightweight intellectual. He's a populariser and an institutional force, not a major thinker. Unless you're somewhat familiar with the organisational and institutional history of postmodernism, there's no reason to've heard of him.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:16 PM on October 24, 2005

I thought Fish ended his career at UIC. He was Dean, but I think he's retired/emeritus now.
posted by allen.spaulding at 3:19 PM on October 24, 2005

Oops, Wikipedia says he moved to FIU last year after finishing at UIC.
posted by allen.spaulding at 3:20 PM on October 24, 2005

"Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:"

"It is easy to see that the natural local map of local O-algebras is an isomorphism because for functorial reasons the map has a natural section which induces an isomorphism on Zariski tangent spaces at closed points, and one can then use Nakayama's lemma."
posted by escabeche at 3:25 PM on October 24, 2005

Fish is the Dawkins of PoMo.

"I am also suspicious when people talk of postmodern times as a major period of history that we are now entering or have recently entered into."

Well... You should be. When people talk about the "postmodern times" they're trying to steal your seed.
No... They're refering to being after Modernism, the artistic and philosophical movement that ran from about 1890-1950.
posted by klangklangston at 3:27 PM on October 24, 2005

The kid will be ok if he (1) gets to the North Shore of Oahu NOW!
posted by Relay at 3:32 PM on October 24, 2005

Languagehat, I snarked overly much in my response to de Rose, but my point about Fish was that if you're going to slap postmodernity around why not try on Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or Marx or Freud or Heidegger or Husserl or ... I'm fine with Stanley Fish being very important, but one of my primary objections to the article is that de Rose is all too quick to dismiss postmodernity without addressing the (actual) major thinkers.

I think de Rose would be unimpressed if I dismissed analytic philosophy and claimed "why no, I've never read Plato or Kant, why do you ask?"

By the way, if anyone wants to say the thinkers I've listed are actually Modern rather than postmodern, that's fine, I suppose. That fits in with how they disguise postmodernity at a major research institution like UM (which seems to be the only kind important to de Rose). In my view, as they all offered critiques of the currents of Modernity, be it religious, political, or scientific Modernity, they sowed the seeds of what is now considered postmodern thought.
posted by Slothrop at 3:37 PM on October 24, 2005

You've got to be careful about conflating continental and post-modern philosophers, comrade. The guys you listed are continental, not post-modern, I'd say, and I'd include Kant and Hegel in there, for that matter.

Post-modernity is probably best described as the post-structuralists, the alterities, the semioticians, the post-Freudian psychoanalysts and the Frankfurt school. People like Levinas, Gadamer and Arendt, while not analytic philosophers, are really fairly intellectually distinct from Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard etc.

Giorgio Agamben, if you're familiar with his stuff, has a brief argument in Potentialities where he provides us with a useful criterion to distinguish the two. Continental philosophy is interested in transcendence and transcendental structures, while post-modernism is a collection of philosophies of immanence. Heidegger is the common point between the two groups, and kind of straddles both.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:47 PM on October 24, 2005

A philosopher calling postmodern discourse hollow? That's a hoot.

Slothrop seems to have taken everyone's thunder--this piece is worth looking at just to get a sense of knee-jerk anti-pomo feeling, which is its own form of anti-intellectualism.

Honestly, I felt like I was reading something from 1985--this guy doen't get out much.

Although he'd resist the label of pomo, Richard Rorty runs circles around this guy.
posted by bardic at 3:52 PM on October 24, 2005

Also, I wonder if the proposal written by an English professor at a "prominent" university is Charles Bernstein.
posted by bardic at 3:57 PM on October 24, 2005

There was a lot of debate about such things a while back at the valve. It actually got a lot of intelligent responses both there and elsewhere from people who agreed and disagreed. Michael Berube and John McGowan participated, eg.
posted by kenko at 4:00 PM on October 24, 2005

Okayokay, since there seem to be some people here who might know

What is postmodernism? what's the diffrence between postmodernism and Postmodernity?

I always thought postmodernism was supposed to basicaly be sarcastic (or something) Or is that literary postmodernism?

posted by delmoi at 4:03 PM on October 24, 2005

Having read it again, I find the DeRose screed genuinely baffling, on the order of someone today decrying The Armory Show of 1913. "Why, some of them paintings could be hung upside down!" Slothrop's Fish query gave me pause, but only in the sense that the Kadmos-sown names of an academic mileu I was once part of is now a new battlefield, with new hoplites. Good on Slothrop. DeRose, however, starts smoothly enough, but goes huffy quickly; at the end I was genuinely embarrassed for the man: "Mood rings" and splutterings of "blips" — a desperate stomping on molehills of his own making.

Doubt poor dead — and always exquisitely well-mannered —Derrida would have stopped to give hell to DeRoses.

Personally, I took my thorough-going textual skepticism into the professional (non-academic) workforce, and it has been quite helpful in chopping up phlanxes of MBAs. Yay!

On preview, pretty much what Bardic said.
posted by Haruspex at 4:07 PM on October 24, 2005

Pseudoephedrine, you have more knowledge about that distinction than I do. I think I leapt to the thinkers I listed because many of the critiques of objectivity stem from their work. I also tend to define postmodern similar to klangklangston, as the period following the cultural, philosophical period of Modernism (although I give it somewhat different dates depending on considerations for philosophy or literature or art). This is in part because I have often had one foot in art and the other in philosophy, where the term has two slightly different meanings, best ameliorated by the historical definition. So, if you take Modernity as being characterized by the Enlightenment and beginning roughly after the Renaissance, then Postmodernity could be seen as the transition away from or against Modernity (and thus having critiques against the West, capitalism, industrialism, sexism, objectivity, and so on).

I'm certainly biased by my BA course which tended to emphasize the thinkers I've listed as providing the heritage for postmodern thinkers.

All the same, I doubt de Rose would do much with Adorno, Horkheimer or Benjamin (with whom I am most familiar in your list of postmodern thinkers).

Thanks for the comments, though!
posted by Slothrop at 4:09 PM on October 24, 2005

Is it really accurate to classify the Frankfurt School as postmodern?
posted by joe lisboa at 4:11 PM on October 24, 2005

Though I paraphrase here (cant find the damned book at the moment)

What was the line from Heidegger" I think it was from the Origin of the Work of Art .

"What is a thing, and how do we know it truly a thing until it reveals itself to us as a thing?"

Until it reveals itself to us as a thing????? Jebus.....what a ton of BS.

I have a pal who has PhD in Rhetoric, and is knee deep in this stuff in the course of teaching college. He writes some paper on the X-Files and the prevelance of paranoia in America and calls it deep scholarship.


posted by timsteil at 4:11 PM on October 24, 2005

Ah, the Sheeshers have arrived.
posted by Haruspex at 4:14 PM on October 24, 2005

Let he who has the good sense not to sign his posts on a forum that does so automatically cast the first stone, dude.

Also: making fun of Heidegger because he's over your head is soooo 19sixtystupid.

Relax! Sheesh.

posted by joe lisboa at 4:17 PM on October 24, 2005

Initial disclaimer: I know nothing about post-modernism.

I see comments, both from supporters and detractors, that post-modernism goes at ideas of universal justification, permanent objective reality, and the like. And I see comments, again from both, that say that it is therefore used to attack the foundations of "capitalism, industrialism, sexism" and the like. Why doesn't it also attack the foundations of non-capitalism, agrarianism/tribalism, gender equality, and the like? Or, if it does, why do people dismiss these foundation attacks while focussing on the others?

None of that was meant to be baiting, just legitimate questions from someone who knows enough to know that he doesn't know enough to have an actual opinion on the subject.
posted by Bugbread at 4:22 PM on October 24, 2005

No problem, Slothrop.

delmoi> Postmodernism is both a critical term and a type of art.

Generally, critical or philosophical postmodernism are based, as Slothrop pointed out, on a critique of a thing now often referred to as "modernity". Basically, modernity is the set of beliefs, attitudes and modes of living that came out of the period known as the "Enlightenment". What the key features of those beliefs, attitudes and modes of living are is a topic for much debate, but basically they're talking about Western society in its current technocratic, industrialised state.

Postmodern styles of art are the types of art that come after the "modern" styles (Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Fauvism, etc.) They tend to involve radical critiques of the traditional conceptions of what art is, how it should be presented, and how it should interact with life.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:25 PM on October 24, 2005

joe lisboa> The Frankfurts are both postmodern and not postmodern. Historically, they're basically the guys who start off with this really interesting critique of instrumental reason from a Marxist perspective, who then get superceded/absorbed by the "alterity" crowd in Foucault, feminism, etc. and who then end up, in the form of Habermas (the last surviving Frankfurter) arguing in favour of modernity.

Bugbread> Some of them do, some of them are more focused on the West because of the politics of their time (postmodernism historically only really gets going in 1968), and some of them are hypocrites.

Generally, you've got:

"Solidarity" postmodernists, who believe in solidarity amongst the various groups "oppressed" by traditional Western structures and thus subjecting your fellow-travelers to less critical examination (Foucault, frex). This is big stuff amongst the alterities especially, since they link stuff like gay rights to equal rights for women to equal rights for blacks, etc.

"Anti-social" postmodernists, who tend to spend their time quibbling over who forgot to cite who, and bickering over whether it's "hegemonies of structure" or "structure of hegemonies" that accurately describes whatever. The post-structuralists tend this way, along with the more egotistical members of the next group. Depending upon what they're applying post-structuralism to, they can be in the former group as well, though rarely with another post-structuralist.

"I don't believe in metanarratives but here's one anyhow" postmodernists. The psychoanalysts, the semioticians and the Frankfurt school all fall into the last group. They're more collegial than the anti-socials and more critical than the solidarities because to a certain extent, they think they're carrying on something like a successor project to the sciences, so legitimate collegial criticism of another person's theories can be articulated meaningfully.

Generally, the solidarity types are the ones who love dictators and don't believe in criticising genocidal group X because they're "resisting oppression" or whatever. The other two groups tend to wobble around what we think of as European left.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:52 PM on October 24, 2005

Pseudoephedrine is right to connect philosophical and esthetic discourse regarding modern and postmodern thought. I can't find the quotation, but Lyotard said something like modernism is based on achieving a new reality based on ideals in art, culture, and science. Postmodernism is kind of the fetishization of modernism--it's all about the journey itself, since the destination ("Gleaming vaulted cities of brilliance, kids with nice teeth, a shared understanding of reality, etc.") is highly suspect. In a sense, it does say almost any philosophical and esthetic movement is justified, which can be liberating, but the dark side of this (think Nietzsche, who is embraced by many pomo thinkers although he was writing in the 19th century) is the abyss, the inability to ever truly communicate, the death of public discourse and true politiccal action (it's all bullshit, but we won't be fooled again, mes amis. How was that Cindy Sherman opening, anyways?)

Take this for what it's worth--there are literally hundreds of definitions for postmodernism and modernism. I mentioned Rorty because I had the good luck to take some courses with him as a graduate student--he takes pomo discourse seriously (cutting out a lot of the bullshit), but is still interested in creating a public discourse linked to progressive action.

If you're interested more in the esthetic side of things, I'm also a big fan of Arthur Danto and his After the End of Art. There's also language poetry, or langpo, if you really have some free time. Again, if modernism tries to draw our attention to the creation of the object (letting the brushstrokes stand out, allowing the frame to define the field of vision of the photograph), one could argue that postmodern art fully revels in ("deconstructs") the objectness of the art object itself. Don't suspend your disbelief, revel in it--it's all a fake, but then again, so is your driver's license. It can be heady stuff. It can also be incredibly tedious. It doesn't like you.

I guess I'll give de Rose some credit--it's understandable why other academics, especially in humanities departments, can get so frustred with the idea of postmodernism, because it essentially cuts the moorings of any intellectual endeavor from quantifiable notions of truth and information gathering (and hence the word "play" is so important for many of them. Of course, it's much easier to "play" once you get tenure, but that's for another thread and my own dropping out of a PhD program for literature). It's incredibly personality driven these days, and while some of these people are genuinely brilliant (I always found Andrew Ross to be highly overrated, IMHO), a lot of those who come in their wake are rankly mediocre.

Then again, I imagine de Rose would have to admit he's advised some really stinky dissertations within the analytic tradition. Mediocrity doesn't belong to any discursive field.

Ah, I'm going too long here. Just one more anecdote from my grad school days--Pomo stuff is still hot shit in English departments, but you'd be laughed at if you ever called yourself a postmodernist. Many of the ideas, especially those of Derrida and Lacan (now standard reading for any intro. to literary theory) are just taken for granted, in my experience.

Neat FPP, neat discussion. /preview: I really like Cindy Sherman. Personality driven, yes, but also quite smart.
posted by bardic at 5:02 PM on October 24, 2005

To be fair, Fish is a pretty lightweight intellectual. He's a populariser and an institutional force, not a major thinker.
Uh, what?
Obviously you're not a Milton scholar.
As a postmodernist, maybe you can characterize Fish as a "lightweight" but as a literary critic, he's anything but (although admittedly his best years are long behind him).
posted by papakwanz at 5:25 PM on October 24, 2005

I am reminded of a former student of mine who went on to a top university and got a PhD in critical theory. When I told him that his focus on marxism seem silly because Marx was so patently wrong when we look at the real political world, he told me that Yes, in reality Marx is wrong but as a theorist he is very very important. Theory, it seems, trumps reality.
posted by Postroad at 5:26 PM on October 24, 2005

Papakwanz> Philosophically, Fish just isn't that interesting. I understand that as one of the first guys to get a good grasp on postmodern literary criticism in North America, he was able to make his name actually applying it, but theoretically, he's nothing special.

Postroad> Marxist critical theorists apply Marx's sociological theories, not his economic theories.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 5:33 PM on October 24, 2005

Slothrop: You're near me. I challenge you to a beer.

Postroad: Material conception of history, my friend. Marx one-upped Hegel and gave a (not entirely new, but certainly new enough) way of examining everything that preceeds now. The "theory trumps reality" is a canard, and from it I'd guess that you haven't read much Marx.

Bardic: Sherman is crap. Her best work was a Walker Evans, and her photography is Wegman plus feminism. She's one step up from Ann Geddes.
Now, Sophie Calle, that's what Sherman should be...

Back to Slothrop: Man, I always thought of Modernity in art as showing up at the pre-impressionist point. I read a great argument somewhere (that I can't find now) that posited that Luncheon on the Grass by Manet is both the first resolutely Modernist painting and the first Post-Modernist painting. One of those fun things about pomo is that something can both be and not be at the same time...

And overall, yeah, this guy forgets that fun is essential to Post Modernism. Think of Derrida as the quonsar of academia.
posted by klangklangston at 6:04 PM on October 24, 2005

klangklangston, I've seen the same about Manet. I think art history hipsters are now trying to say that Velasquez was the first Modern painter. I think I'll have to claim that Jacques Louis David was the first postmodern painter or something to catch up... 'Dejeuner' does have going for it that it appears Manet started another painting right in the middle of it (the woman "in" the river).

To the thread - We're leaving out that postmodernity has a specific meaning in architecture somewhat apart from art. But that's just me being a pedant.

As to a beer, sure. I'm a painter and all-around art graduate student at UM, so I'm in Ann Arbor everyday, although my secret lair is in the mightier Ypsilanti. EMail in the profile!
posted by Slothrop at 6:40 PM on October 24, 2005

Velazquez gets a lot of attention since Foucault wrote about him in The Order of Things.

I'm comfortable saying that postmodernism tends to be more of a practice than a body of knowledge, and hence avoids the will to knowledge.
posted by bardic at 7:03 PM on October 24, 2005

He calls out philosophical heavyweights like Stanley Fish

No, calling out Stanley Fish would require arguing against Fish's actual scholarly work, rather than tearing into a bit of argumentative fluff that Fish sent the NYT when there was a brouhaha (quite a straw man)!
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:58 PM on October 24, 2005

I think defining postmodernism as "what happened after modernism," and then trying to stick a date, like 1950 or so, on it, is bizarre. Postmodernism is an approach, and a loose one at that. There are more flavors in postmodernsims than there are at Baskin Robins, and its been going on, in ebs and flows, since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. Remember that if you define social modernism as a phenomenon largely paralleled by industrialization and the cultural priveledging of empirical reasoning, you in turn have to situate the start of that somewhere around the 1830s.

The "I guess theory trumps reality," comment about Marx is emblamatic of the kind of off-the-cuff namecalling that makes everyone in the debate, from the blind-devotion-to-epistemeological-hegemony positivist objectivists to the gravity-as-text poststructuralist deconstructivists, look like morons. And not only that, it demonstrates what little understanding you have of the subject. From economics to literary criticism to sociology to yes even political science, there are few social sciences that owe nothing to his work.

And you know what else? People get PhDs in string theory all the time, and nobody seems to mind. By its very nature, when you do research at the fringes of knowledge, you might be right and you might be wrong, and that's the nature of the beast. If you are really a professor, I am shocked. Few I know would be so cavalier in regards to what could argued to be the most infuential thinker of all time. It'd be like saying, "Well, Newton turned out to be wrong, didn't he, so why study that guy?" As I think about it, that must be a snark, but a great one, none the less.

From my own experience as a graduate student, I've found that most people find this debate tiresome. Anyone who's really honest has to admit that both modern and postmodern approaches have important things to offer social science and theory, and ignoring one or pillorying the other merely limits your own depth of understanding.
posted by ChasFile at 8:15 PM on October 24, 2005

All of these referents : words, names.

They are so contingent.

It would be so cool if language could be reduced to a series of logical propositions.

Then, I wouldn't get caught up in situations in which I feel obliged to rely on emphatically rude hand gestures.

Just saying.
posted by troutfishing at 8:34 PM on October 24, 2005

Postmodernism is often contextualized as part of the paradigm surrounding the futility of culture. Fish, like Danto, promotes the use of Hegelian simulation to challenge the status quo. However, any number of materialisms concerning Marxist socialism exist.

Interesting that you should mention Rorty. In the lectures of Rorty, a predominant concept is the distinction between transcendence and transcendental structures. The subject is contextualised into a cultural predialectic theory that includes truth as a totality. Therefore, the premise of Baudrillardist simulation holds that philosophies of immanence have intrinsic meaning, given that culture is distinct from language.
The primary theme of the criticisms of Fish is the paradigm, and thus the fatal flaw, of patriarchial society. A number of narratives concerning a self-falsifying whole may be found. However Fish, like Sontag uses the term 'cultural predialectic theory' to denote not destructuralism, but postdestructuralism.

If one examines Kierkegaard or Marx or Freud or Heidegger as simulation, one is faced with a choice: either reject cultural predialectic theory or conclude that culture is used to exploit the Other. The characteristic theme of Giorgio Agamben’s essay on the subcapitalist paradigm of reality is the difference between philosophical identity and reality. But many narratives concerning Marxist socialism exist.

"Postmodernism as identity is meaningless," says Lacan. Foucault uses the term 'Baudrillardist simulation' to denote the role of the observer as poet. Thus, the opening/closing distinction prevalent in Pynchon's Vineland emerges again in Gravity's Rainbow.

Fish's critique is, in a sense, a cultural paradox. He implies that we have to choose between cultural predialectic theory and neotextual theory. However, several appropriations concerning the bridge between postmodernism and postmodern identity may be discovered.
Derrida states that context comes from the masses. In a sense, if cultural predialectic theory holds, the works of Pynchon are modernistic, whereas Bataille suggests the use of Marxist socialism to modify and attack society. Therefore, the subject is interpolated into a cultural predialectic theory that includes narrativity as a whole. The premise of cultural predialectic theory suggests that academe is part of the dialectic of art. Therefore, several narratives concerning the role of the artist as writer may be found. The subject is contextualised into a cultural predialectic theory that includes art as a totality. In a sense, Marx suggests the use of textual predialectic theory to modify philosophically heurestic identity.

Capitalist submodernist theory holds that culture may be used to entrench capitalism, given that Lyotard's model of Marxist socialism is invalid. But Debord promotes the use of the Quonsarian camp to deconstruct postmodernism.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:37 PM on October 24, 2005

Paging freebird! He knows what he's talking about.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:03 PM on October 24, 2005

the guy lost me right around the point where he started talking about democrats and republicans ... it seemed too post-modernist for a critique of post-modernism

but carry on ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:25 PM on October 24, 2005

Several pages after delmoi's question, I still don't think we've seen an explanation of the difference between postmodernism and postmodernity.

It can be misleading to look for simple definitions to words whose meanings are widely contested, since what usually matters most is how the individual or group you're trying to understand is using the words. That being said, there is a useful distinction that can be made between these words, and as far as I can tell it's not one I made up myself. (For example, the third paragraph in this section of the Wikipedia article seems to be saying something similar.)

Postmodernism often refers to a particular stance, theoretical or otherwise, the details of which are being contested above. Postmodernity often refers to a broad cultural phenomenon involving postmodernism in academic thought, popular questioning/rejection of formerly rigid belief systems (like belief in God, or belief in strict gender roles), and perhaps lots of other stuff too (again, Wikipedia has a list ). In other words, postmodernism characterizes the views of some individuals, while postmodernity characterizes a social phenomenon which most of us in the West are experiencing in one way or another. On this definition, we could reasonably talk about "a postmodern fundamentalist Christian" in the sense that the Christian is experiencing postmodernity, but not in the sense that her views are postmodern.

I claim no expertise, and am only offering something I thought might be helpful; feel free to correct it.
posted by gorillawarfare at 9:27 PM on October 24, 2005

christ almighty. i cannot believe that:

(a) y'all read all of this. i was a big pomo/poststructuralist/blahblah hack and it bored me pretty damn quick -- maybe i just wasn't in the mood sitting in the denver airport, and

(b) that this thread got so damn long. where were y'all during the foucault discussion a little while back on that Becker thread?
posted by spiderwire at 9:38 PM on October 24, 2005

WGP> Nice, but you can spot it's a fake from the line "Hegelian simulation" on. I didn't know the new generators let you fill in the theorists you wanted. Nifty feature.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:39 PM on October 24, 2005

making fun of Heidegger because he's over your head is soooo 19sixtystupid.

no, that's a perfectly valid criticism. having read my share of heidegger, it's not a big stretch to say that anyone who starts making up terms like being-about-and-during-the-world-with-chopsticks and expecting you to remember then 200 pages later is being unreasonably obtuse.

i mean, it's not like derrida/kant/lacan/whomever are exactly the acme of clarity, but heidegger is ridiculous.

(NB.... this thread is like ten ships passing in the night. some of you are talking about artistic postmodernism, some literary, philosophical.... "pomo" is a catchall term, which was part of what turned me off to this article in the first place. (for that matter, so is "modernity"...) )

now. if we're talking about the postmodern criticism of scientific thought, it's a perfectly valid one, esp from the foucauldian perspective, but it's not tantamount to saying "there is no truth" by any means. all it means is that the context in which you place facts, their arrangement, and what's constituted as a definitive statement of "truth" varies from era to era. kuhn (if you want to talk about a lightweight) makes this argument pretty cogently. philosophical postmodernism isn't the same thing as relativism -- it's just perspectivist. it argues that the truths and facts that are emphasized and the scientific and cultural investigations we undertake, and their methods, are determined by power structures and by the linguistic frames that we use to describe our discoveries.
posted by spiderwire at 9:47 PM on October 24, 2005

you can spot it's a fake from the line "Hegelian simulation" on. I didn't know the new generators let you fill in the theorists you wanted.


did anyone mention Rorty in this thread? i like this line:

But Debord promotes the use of the Quonsarian camp to deconstruct postmodernism.

posted by spiderwire at 9:48 PM on October 24, 2005

Slothrop: One of his comment posters comes close to clueing him in to what I think the point of 'science is socially constructed' might be: that science is not immune to social attitudes. Political and cultural ideologies influence what is studied in science, sometimes with deleterious effects (i.e. again phrenology, Tusekegee syphillis study, etc.).

My understanding is that sociology-of-science-and-technology studies use a more radical methodology than this. Alex Golub, posting on the Savage Minds anthropology group blog:

At the risk of simplification, I’d say that anthropologists have long been of the ‘suspicion’ school of interpretation. There are two reasons for this. First, in the British tradition functionalism (whether structural or Malinowskian) has had a tendency to see beliefs as a function or reflex of underlying social causes. Beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery, classically have been seen as a function of the level of anomie in society (although it is wrong to attribute this position to Evans-Pritchard, as some mistakenly do). Second, while the Boasians had a different approach, but they shared a common belief with their colleagues across the pond—namely, that the beliefs of their research subjects were mistaken. Thus you can argue all day about why people believe in witches, but one answer to the question is almost never proposed: because there are witches.

In other words, when you disagree with the factual contents of the validity claims raised by your informants it is easy to analyze (and demystify) the rhetorical force with which those claims are made and avoid discussing their actual validity. In fact typically anthropologists wussed out and said they would ‘bracket’ the validity of those claims, which is just a way of stating that they thought it would be impolite to diss their informants religious beliefs.

This explanation of beliefs with regards to the conditions which render them plausible rather than to their validity is still something that anthropologists do almost (in my case at least) reflexively....

This methodology applied to the sociology of science and technology implies that you can argue that scientists hold their beliefs for various reasons (e.g. their class, race, gender), but not because those beliefs are actually true.

I don't know much about postmodern literary studies, but it seems to me that the field is (a) rather political (aimed at subverting authority and the status quo), which usually makes it difficult to maintain objectivity; and (b) deliberately obscure.
posted by russilwvong at 10:00 PM on October 24, 2005

oh. and before i leave to go to bed (i'm such an asshole for posting all these successive comments -- this autopreview makes me lazy) i should mention that i have read the article, and that it's a load of bollocks.

two comments:

(1) yes, most pomo hacks in universities are complete fucking jackasses. however -- this same criticism can be levied at pretty much any professor, in any discipline, who has built their career and reputation on defending their particular theory. it doesn't matter what side of the fence they're on. to speak as someone who defends the notions that "postmodernism" (whatever that means) brings to the table, i certainly don't have to defend douchebags like stanley fish, nor whatever morons vetted that Sokal article. please.

(2) no halfway-intelligent "postmodernist" would ever claim that the physical world itself is a meaningless discursive construction. that's fucking asinine. that's a strawman argument. they will claim that our understanding of the physical facts of the universe -- and how we contextualize them in our culture -- depends a lot on how we are situated "discursively."

a good example:

radical postmodernist feminists (somewhat like the "theorists" critiqued in this article) will argue that there are no essential gender differences and that the "science" behind these arguments is part of the patriarchial social structure designed to subordinate women.

the "modernists" and scientists will immediately respond that there is a massive body of work indicating that yes, there are fundamental biological and neurological differences between men and women, whether you want to admit it or not.

the reasonable "pomo" position is that yes, there are biological distinctions -- maybe women are more "intuitive" than men, or what have you -- but where the "discursive structure" becomes important is in how society values those different innate characteristics. you can say that the science is right, but the areas the science investigates, how it characterizes its conclusions (cf. foucault's "repressive hypothesis" argument), and the value that our society assigns to those characteristics, if they are true, is entirely dependent on the discursive configuration of our social environment.

in other words, even if women are more "intuitive," whatever that means, the question we need to ask is why we've chosen to investigate that in the first place, what "intuitive" means, and how our society values that particular ability.

that's not the same thing as saying "science is meaningless" or "science is a conspiracy" like this author characterizes it.

what that is saying is that while science might come to objective conclusions about facts, what we take out of those conclusions is still contingent, and socially/discursively determined.

does that make any sense? it's late. i'm going to bed.
posted by spiderwire at 10:07 PM on October 24, 2005

Boredom and postmodernity are hardly exclusive.
posted by bardic at 10:29 PM on October 24, 2005

*mutually exclusive*, sorry.
posted by bardic at 10:30 PM on October 24, 2005

bardac: obviously. I have to read Adam Phillips for my continental class Friday.

I'm so glad we're done Heidegger :~(
posted by maledictory at 11:01 PM on October 24, 2005

Bardic, sorry.
posted by maledictory at 11:02 PM on October 24, 2005

How 'bout them local sports team?
posted by nervestaple at 11:04 PM on October 24, 2005


Heidegger is difficult because he is inventing a new philosophical vocabulary in Being and Time. He explicitly places himself in the tradition of Aristotle in that respect, who also had to invent a philosophical vocabulary by twisting the Greek language beyond recognition. One of the points H. makes right near the beginning is that the current philosophical language was invented in the service of a particular project, and now that that project is complete, it is time to begin using a new lexicon.

He is, frankly, no worse than reading Aristotle in Greek, and at least as useful to know well. Just as words like "energy" "potential" and "predicate", despite their strangeness in Aristotle, now form a layer of understanding so basic that we barely realise their constructed character, Heidegger's terminology reaches towards a future understanding where they will be as basic as Aristotle's.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:32 PM on October 24, 2005

Wow. I had no idea that this thread was going to get so long!

I'm really ambivalent about debates like this. I did my first degree in this kind of stuff, so I get a little upset when I see off-the-cuff dismissals of pomo theory with a blithe reference to Sokal. But on the other hand, I recognize that critical theory produces a lot of sloppy thought -- way more sloppy thought than most other academic fields. I've seen both the lovers and the haters on MeFi before; I wasn't sure who would take over this thread. Looks like the theory-lovers have won.

I thought the article was woth it for section 5, which pointed out an equivocation that comes up all the time in critical theory and always bugs the bejeezus out of me. Quote: This speaking of “the facts yielded by” science seems to provide a great device to blur the key distinction needed here (is it the facts themselves, or just our theories about them; is it the facts, or the facts-as-viewed by science?)

But to be fair, it's an equivocation that is at the root of a major problem. Finding a place to stand between Platonism and outright social constructivism is really hard, and anyone who thinks they have an easy solution to it is probably wrong.
posted by painquale at 11:39 PM on October 24, 2005

I think spiderwire's last comment nails many things on many heads.

And Pseudoephedrine, I'll say again: Fish may not be considered much in philosophy circles, and that's fine. The man wears a lot of hats: literature professor, postmodernist, JD, what-have-you. But, as a literary critic, in the traditional sense of "let's read books and talk about them" he's done good stuff, particularly his work on Milton. That's not to say it's impregnable work, but obviously that is not a necessary qualifaction for being a good critic. As I said before, his best work is behind him, and yeah, maybe he got caught up a bit too much in the pomo stuff, but any serious literary critic (different from a critical theorist or a philosopher) should know his work.
posted by papakwanz at 12:22 AM on October 25, 2005

Pseudoephedrine: i'm not saying that heidegger is wrong or bad, just that he's esoteric to an absolutely ridiculous degree. i'm not smart enough to make a judgment here -- but he's worse than kant as far as comprehension, and that's saying a lot. i'm not slouch -- i don't think -- and heidegger makes my damn head hurt.

painquale: personally, i don't think you have to equivocate at all. the place to stand -- for me -- is where you say that there are objective facts but that there's a lot of latitude in how you can contextualize and understand them.

that is, even if there are "platonic forms," you can value, devalue, explore, or ignore them as you will. and there are [discursive] structures that affect how we do that...

papakwanz: thanks. i didn't think i was being clear at all. glad someone got it...
posted by spiderwire at 12:37 AM on October 25, 2005

Thanks for the post painquale, it's been a great thread to read.

I don't know the first thing about postmodernism or postmodernity, but I'll give your last statement a go.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but can't I think in a postmodernist mode from time to time without wedding my view of the world to it? In other words, if I'm a Platonist, and I'm beginning to get my head around the concept of the form - don't I have to think for an instant in a postmodernist fashion to get there? Can this switching between pomo and non-pomo thought to arrive at a conclusion that leaves me emotionally comfortable be the middle ground of which you speak?

(Sorry for all the questions).
posted by newscouch at 12:48 AM on October 25, 2005

newscouch: I don't fully understand your question. How are you characterizing a "postmodern mode of thought" as a bridge to Platonism?

In the most bare cheat-sheet form (don't quote me on this), Platonism refers to the idea that there are perfect Forms or Concepts of objects in our conceptual universe, and the things what we see are approximations of those objectively perfect forms. Postmodernism claims that there are no absolute forms, but instead discursively (linguistically?) constructed concepts which approximate those forms. Think of it like the Wizard of Oz -- there is or is not a man ("perfect form") behind the curtain. But we still have the "concept" either way -- the question is whether our concepts refer to a objective, ideal, observable Reality.

Again, I don't really understand your question, but based on what I'm guessing, I'd say that the difference you're pointing to suggests that yes, the human mind inevitably thinks in term of approximations (i.e., not all "trees" are the same, but we think of them all as "trees"), but whereas a Platonist would say that all those Forms refer to one perfect, Platonic Form (the ideal "Tree"), the postmodernist would say that they all merely refer to what we've arbitrarily defined as a "tree." In other words, just a linguistic/discursive construct.

Does that answer the question?

(Again, this is a gross oversimplification, but I'm merely trying to identify the issue here.)
posted by spiderwire at 1:11 AM on October 25, 2005

Papakwanz> Fair enough. I'm primarily interested in postmodern philosophy, as is Slothrop it appears. The comment was originally made in the context of languagehat's remarks.

Spiderwire> Much of it is actually the result of poor translations. That's normally a cop out, but in this case I think it holds water. There is no standard in English for translating anything but the most basic terms he uses, and many of the English translations vary internally to the point of incoherence, let alone when one tries to compare them.

Because there's no standard of translation, there's also a paucity of commentaries and introductions to the work that break it down sensibly in the same way one is introduced to any other thinker. And those commentaries, where they do exist, contradict one another terminologically (which of "Vorhandheit" and "Zuhandheit" ought to become "Present-at-hand" and which "Ready-at-hand" is still unsettled, for example, with the two major English language translations each taking the opposite position from the other). Translators of Heidegger working on individual essays where the terms are mentioned simply choose one or the other without, in many instances, clarifying which German word they are referring to.

Beyond the innumerable problems of translation, the paedogogical approach to Heidegger is poor as well. Everyone I know who is taught Heidegger, myself included, has Being and Time thrown at them, is commanded to read and make sense of it without any critical resources.

Compare this with the approach to Kant, where one typically reads the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics prior to tackling the Critique of Pure Reason, because the former, though written later, is designed to guide one through the thought that will be encountered unadulterated in CoPR. It lays out the course, and lets those interested in the technical details read the Critique proper.

Meanwhile, a similar relationship exists between Introduction to Metaphysics and Being and Time, but one at best reads ItM after Being and Time, if one even covers it. In fact, ItM is Heidegger's lecture course on the thought of Being and Time, explaining it to a number of upper-year philosophy students in clear, remarkably lucid language.

However, none of this denies that Heidegger is a difficult read even with a good translation, or in the native German. His thought is subtle and deep, and it takes a great deal of study to follow it as it goes without missing the details that make it the work of genius that it is.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:13 AM on October 25, 2005

Pseudoephedrine: Completely agree. As you say, Heidegger is a slog, to say the least. Like I said, I'm no slouch in this area, and he still kinda drives me nuts.

However, looking back on this thread, the Heidegger discussion originated with timsteil making some asinine comment about how hard it is to understand. I shouldn't have even bothered responding to it, but it caught my eye because Heidegger drives me nuts. But that's not to say that he's wrong or that I have a dispute there.

I mean, nod of the head to the whole idea of creating a new philosophical vocabulary, but it's still hard as hell to comprehend... I was just seizing on a pet peeve of mine. You and I have no disagreement about Heidegger -- you just know more about him than I do.

Regardless, thanks for the commentary. :D
posted by spiderwire at 1:22 AM on October 25, 2005

Oh, and: Fair enough. I'm primarily interested in postmodern philosophy, as is Slothrop it appears.

WTF am I, chopped liver? I thought I was at least keeping up. I must be out of practice. O:-)
posted by spiderwire at 1:23 AM on October 25, 2005

Spiderwire: thanks for the clarification.

I guess the bridge I'm referring to is the leap - if your burgeoning Platonist - from abandoning the idea that your neighborhood tree is the form of the tree, and presuming that there could be other trees which could be the form of the tree. A Platonist's psychology may dictate that from that point on they need to pick one of those other trees as a form just to keep from going mad. But for a moment they can grasp what I'll call an absence of reality - or a complete divorce from known truth.

From your description, I'm guessing that a pomo believer stays in that state. (And what a glorious place it must be at times).

I guess my point is that instead of focusing on whether one identifies one's self as a Platonist or a postmodernist, the fact that time can separate stages of comprehension of the nature of the universe means that one can be both, although not, obviously, simultaneously. This ability to switch, is my stab at the 'middle ground'.

I'm obviously a bit too slow for this thread though, so please excuse the rough edges.
posted by newscouch at 2:42 AM on October 25, 2005

A lot of posts in this thread refer to various philosophers as "thinkers". What exactly is a "thinker"? Can a theoretical physicist be one, or do you have to write giant tracts of incoherent trendy sounding waffle to be one?
posted by snoktruix at 4:50 AM on October 25, 2005

bardic writes "this piece is worth looking at just to get a sense of knee-jerk anti-pomo feeling, which is its own form of anti-intellectualism."

This bears repeating. It's pretty easy to pillory and satirize post-modern philosophical thought (a term I hate for it's utter lack of content), especially because people get excited and try and push it beyond the limits of rigor. This is, unfortunately, one of the side-effects of a group of theories that conflate anti-foundationalist attempts to disrupt the meta-narratives and social justice. But most of these criticisms are moot when applied to Foucault, early Derrida, early Lacan (pre-topography), etc. Of course one can agree or disagree with those theorists, but their method is rigorous enough to withstand actual criticism.
posted by OmieWise at 6:10 AM on October 25, 2005

I prefer post-holism myself.
posted by warbaby at 7:02 AM on October 25, 2005


Thank you. This comment is the first thing I've (probably ever) read that made postmodernism 1) make sense, and 2) appear to be anything other than insane bunk.

It's not a characteristic unique to pomo, but in every discussion about postmodernism, I see some pretty clear descriptions about what's wrong with pomo, yet no clear descriptions about what's right about it, other than that famous postmodernist thinkers are "great", "important", "revolutionary", and the like; that one needs to read at least 10 rather difficult-going books in order to understand pomo enough to understand what's right about it; extraordinarily vague descriptions of pomo that fail to actually inform the reader of anything; or extremely dense descriptions that fail for the opposite reason (I, for example, was completely fooled by weapons_grade_plutonium's post, except for the "Quonsarian" bit, which I assumed was a joke at the end of a serious description, precisely because I have seen so much earnest pomo writing that looks just like it).

I realize that your comment was a quick glance at pomo, and that I shouldn't take it to be the totality of pomo. I realize it isn't a perfect encapsulation. I realize I don't know enough to go swinging into a debate about pomo armed only with that comment. But I thank you for showing me a glimpse of something of pomo that does not make me think it's all a heap of shit, but has some validity.
posted by Bugbread at 7:22 AM on October 25, 2005

If I keep reading "pomo" as "porno" am I bad?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:38 AM on October 25, 2005

newscouch: It's been years since I've read Plato, but I'm more or less certain that no particular instance of a tree can or would ever be held up as "the form of the tree." The Platonic Form is the ideal to which particular objects aspire and from which particular objects get their identity as part of a category.

The question, though, is how we, as tree-identifiers or tree-makers (okay, let's say bed-makers) gain knowledge of this tree-Form or this bed-Form. The answer, of course, is that we only have access to these Forms through experience with their particular instantiations (actual, imperfect beds and trees).

It's only a non-Platonic hop, skip, and jump from there to a claim that the Forms are in fact discursive constructions, produced as categories or genres through experience with the particular instead of (as Plato describes them) pre-existing and providing the basis for the particular.
posted by nobody at 9:40 AM on October 25, 2005

Thanks nobody, that clears up some of my confusion.
posted by newscouch at 11:31 AM on October 25, 2005

Damn you, Metafilter, you ate my long comment!
posted by klangklangston at 11:38 AM on October 25, 2005

Snoktruix> The term is generally used for people involved in postmodern critical theory, and post-Heideggerian continental philosophy.

For the Heideggerians, this is because a "philosopher" is someone who takes part in the (now completed in their view) project of metaphysics - the study of beings as beings (this is weirdly broad - essentially Heidegger means everyone from scientists to historians to actual analytic philosophers). A "thinker" is someone who superficially resembles a philosopher, but is "no longer metaphysical" in their thought. What exactly that consitutes is more or less the problem Heidegger worked on for the rest of his life after Being and Time.

For the postmodern critical theorists, they take Heidegger's idea and turn it into "philosophy is finished and over" and thus call themselves "thinkers" because they don't want to be called "philosophers" (or "literary critics" or whatever).
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 12:13 PM on October 25, 2005

spiderwire: personally, i don't think you have to equivocate at all. the place to stand -- for me -- is where you say that there are objective facts but that there's a lot of latitude in how you can contextualize and understand them.

Sure. Sounds plausible. Sounds Kantian. But I don't think it's postmodernist. When you say:

you can say that the science is right, but the areas the science investigates, how it characterizes its conclusions ...and the value that our society assigns to those characteristics, if they are true, is entirely dependent on the discursive configuration of our social environment.

you're making a pretty mundane claim (who could disagree with it? Who ever has disagreed with it?) that doesn't capture the radicalness of postmodern thought. You're drawing a hard line between objective facts in the world and the values that we assign to those facts. But I take it as characteristic of postmodernism that there is no fact/value distinction. What principled distinction will tell us how to cordon off the observer-independent theory-independent facts from the mediated, situated ones? According to the postmoderns, there is no distinction to be had (Fish, Derrida, Irigaray, Kristeva, and Baudrillard all certianly think this; to distance yourself from this position really is to distance yourself from postmodernism altogether). And if you want to try to give a distinction, which seems the right thing to do, it's really tough.

All of this stems from the German Idealist tradition and ultimately from Kant. Kant's gift to the world was showing that we can't know things-in-themselves; we have to shoehorn them into our categories. When we do science, what we're really doing is showing the world as we conceptualize it; i.e., we're doing psychology. But from this position, it's a slippy slippy slope to saying that all our knowledge is socially constructed. We go from noting that all our knowledge is a part of a theory to realizing that change in our theories must be affected from within the theories themselves. Different philosophers have tried to provide toeholds to prevent the slide (Kant's a priori, Quine's surface stimulations, etc.), and hence distinguish concepts given to us by the world from concepts that we impose upon the world.

What I like about the postmoderns is that they recognize that there's a problem here, and don't bother to look for toeholds; they careen down the slope and go overboard by saying the speed of light is sexed, or something silly like that. But to suggest that the postmoderns aren't commited to a blurring of facts and values really is to read with a broad brush. When postmoderns like Fish come out and handwavingly say "look, of course there are scientific laws that exist independently of our theories" without giving even an inkling of how to distinguish objective facts from our theories of those facts, they betray their tradition in order to attain popular approval.
posted by painquale at 12:56 PM on October 25, 2005

Er...okay, so spiderwire was the first person whose comments made pomo seem like something other than wank, but now it seems that what spiderwire described wasn't pomo but Kantianism (or whatever it's called), leaving me back where I started...
posted by Bugbread at 1:26 PM on October 25, 2005

I'd like to join bugbread in thanking spiderwire for extremely enlightening commentary. And this:

Think of Derrida as the quonsar of academia.

...has caused me to look at Derrida in an entirely new way. (And he was very pleasant and communicative when I met him in person, as quonsar is said to be by the lucky few who have had the opportunity.)
posted by languagehat at 1:43 PM on October 25, 2005

painquale: sigh. yes, to some degree you're right, and we can get into this in more detail if you like, but... i hope i wasn't indicating that i was trying to do anything but paint the subject with a very, very broad brush.

so, two things: first, i'm not trying to defend all flavors of postmodernism, as i thought that i made clear. no judith butler, probably not baudrillard, etc. there's no shortage of people who can't seem to negotiate that slippery slope between absolutism and realism. second, i do think that it's quite possible to sit in the middle and still be considered "postmodernist," but i didn't think that it was realistic to get into that in the space of this thread.

however, to call everything between absolutism and relativism "kantian" is also painting with a pretty broad brush, if you don't mind me saying so...

now, if you'll excuse me, i'm going to go dig out my foucault and maybe see if i can come up with a concise response...
posted by spiderwire at 1:52 PM on October 25, 2005

Bugbread> Spiderwire is taking a postmodern position. Kant thought that our relations to facts were strictly determined by the structure of consciousness, not worked out in a discursive fashion.

Now, Spiderwire isn't taking a very popular postmodern position, admittedly. Painquale is right that most postmodern thinkers take the ideas to the point of ridiculousness. I'd say that's why I wouldn't consider myself a postmodernist, actually. I'm unwilling to make that particular leap.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:42 PM on October 25, 2005

spiderwire: Thanks for the very polite response! I didn't mean to attack you, really. (And I definitely shouldn't have said your position sounded Kantian... you're right, that was waaaaaay too sloppy. Take note, bugbread!). It just seemed that you were making postmodernism sound much more -- well, reasonable than it typically is, and rubbing out a lot of the features that distinguish it from other movements.

Mostly, I was responding to your treatment of the linked article, because I think a lot of it is spot-on. The hard-core postmodernists really do lapse into utter social constructivism, and when backed into corners, they equivocate on terms like "scientific laws" without making clear how to distinguish between laws in a social framework and laws in the world. That's a poor cop-out. Postmodernism as a whole does tend to be really radical, and I don't think that's something that should be cloaked.

This isn't to say that you can't be a postmodernist and have some realist views. (I'm sure many of the big postmodern theorists do, but it's very hard to pin them down on this!) But the "broad brush" view, which De Rose was replying to, isn't one that would sponsor clean distinctions between empirical facts and social structures.

Oh, and in response to the discussion about Fish, this [pdf] is an excellent and very readable paper by Michael Berube on how Fish brought postmodernism to literary studies.

My favorite part of this thread was the word "19sixtystupid."
posted by painquale at 2:50 PM on October 25, 2005

Notes taken, and thanks for the clarifications, Pseudoephedrine and painquale.
posted by Bugbread at 3:03 PM on October 25, 2005

Another great discussion from Metafilter... People who disagree, yet know what they're talking about (mostly— but hey, it is post-modernism).

Maybe one of the problems with political threads is that politics is a subject everyone thinks that they know enough about and have enough interest in to argue about...
posted by klangklangston at 5:46 PM on October 25, 2005

dense dense dense.
It is so frustrating for the 15 year olds
who are genuinely interested in KNOWING.
This wine is good.
I'm so sorry - they dish out ten dollar words like it will somehow cover their student loans.

I overheard an associate "explaining" postmodernism to a highschooler.
Ass. Utter ass.

Can I say cultural relativism without getting hit with a tomato? Yes? Good.

Postmodernism = Cultural relativism.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:06 PM on October 25, 2005

dense dense dense.
It is so frustrating for the 15 year olds
who are genuinely interested in KNOWING.
This wine is good.
I'm so sorry - they dish out ten dollar words like it will somehow cover their student loans.

I overheard an associate "explaining" postmodernism to a highschooler.
Ass. Utter ass.

Can I say cultural relativism without getting hit with a tomato? Yes? Good.

Postmodernism = Cultural relativism.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:07 PM on October 25, 2005

dense dense dense.
It is so frustrating for the 15 year olds
who are genuinely interested in KNOWING.
This wine is good.
I'm so sorry - they dish out ten dollar words like it will somehow cover their student loans.

I overheard an associate "explaining" postmodernism to a highschooler.
Ass. Utter ass.

Can I say cultural relativism without getting hit with a tomato? Yes? Good.

Postmodernism = Cultural relativism.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:08 PM on October 25, 2005

Holy cow.

Now _that_ is beautiful.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:08 PM on October 25, 2005

B_B is being ironically postmodern. :) Repetition! Stream-of-consciousness authorship!

I found the link I wanted that explains things:
Foucault maintains that the great "turn" in modern philosophy occurs when, with Kant (though no doubt he is merely an example of something much broader and deeper), it becomes possible to raise the question of whether ideas do in fact represent their objects and, if so, how (in virtue of what) they do so. In other words, ideas are no longer taken as the unproblematic vehicles of knowledge; it is now possible to think that knowledge might be (or have roots in) something other than representation. This did not mean that representation had nothing at all to do with knowledge. Perhaps some (or even all) knowledge still essentially involved ideas' representing objects. But, Foucault insists, the thought that was only now (with Kant) possible was that representation itself (and the ideas that represented) could have an origin in something else.
Pretty good explanation there of my position on things. Of course he doesn't really get to the part where Foucault was critiqueing Kant for trying to relocate transcendental value in epistemology, but...

Agreed, good discussion.
posted by spiderwire at 6:32 PM on October 25, 2005

Oh, but painquale, what's up with the "bullshit" tag, huh?
posted by spiderwire at 9:29 PM on October 25, 2005

I wondered if I'd get called on that! Don't take it as an editorial indictment of all postmodern writings; it's there because it's an existing tag that fits the spirit of the linked essay. The author talks about postmodernish writing being bullshit (and a lot of it is), so it seemed to fit the bill.

(I also accidentally wrote 'antimony' instead of 'antinomy' in the title and caught myself before posting, but I was going for inscrutable nonsense anyway so I thought it would be funnier to keep it as a portentious science word used incorrectly.)
posted by painquale at 10:44 PM on October 25, 2005

painquale: It just struck me as overly critical considering your tone in this thread. I think that Pseudoephedrine put it more eloquently than I did -- and you're actually suggesting it in your last comment -- but there are a number of reasonable "pomo" positions. I think I said somewhere upthread that this article really just sort of semed to me like it was swinging at strawmen.

Something that's always struck me is just how quickly we're wont to slap the "relativist" or "social constructivist" tag on lazy pomo intellectuals -- it's not as if that same criticism (intellectual laziness) can't be levied at any number of "modernist" theorists, and I think you can make a pretty good case that the real-world consequences of obtusely absolutist thought have, historically, been far more odious than anything that's resulted from relativism. Why do you think that is?

Not an accusation or anything, but it's just a thought.
posted by spiderwire at 10:56 PM on October 25, 2005

Maybe I'm being dense here, but I still think the main point of de Rose's article still holds water. Bickering about style aside, I took the main thrust to be:

either A) Postmodernists believe that the way we state scientific theories depends on where we are situated, etc.

or B) Postmodernists believe that science itself -- the laws that we study -- are themselves situated, and thus there is no objective scientific truth.

If (A), then Postmodernists aren't saying anything particularly new or interesting. The British empiricists themselves certainly believe this. It seems almost impossible to deny that science, as it's practiced, depends on various and sundry societal institutions. The language we choose to formulate theories in makes theories come out (on the surface) different; different sources of funding cause us to study different things; different societal norms cause us to study things. And once we have our theory, we may apply it in different ways. But, again, this is neither new nor interesting. It shouldn't be particularly troubling to the scientist (of physics or even anthropology), since there is still a plausible method that, it is hoped, can deliver the truth of the matter. The only roadblock here comes either up the road (forming the right questions) or down the road (implementing your new theory) -- but not in science itself.

Of course, if we take them to be saying (B) (and I've heard a great many people at conferences and colloquia say things that could only be interpreted as (B)), the view is ridiculous and self-defeating.
posted by modalpirate at 8:44 AM on October 26, 2005

spiderwire: Well, like I said, I'm ambivalent about this stuff. When I'm among a bunch of people bickering about mediation or somesuch, I feel like deriding postmodernism; sometimes when among people bashing postmodernism I get defensive.

I like postmodern at its best. Contrary to modalpirate's view (and de Rose's, maybe), I don't think it's crazy to suggest that scientific truths only exist within our own perspective and that we have to reject the "view from nowhere." There are plenty of good nonpostmodern philosophers that think this. Kuhn, Haugeland, Brian Cantwell Smith, Carnap, even Quine to some extent all come to mind. (None of them would want to deny objectivity though - they'd all say we have to rethink what by mean by objectivity... so we get things like the later Kuhn's appeals to redefining what we mean by 'reference', and Quine's criterion of ontological commitment, which isn't a transcendental argument meant to get to the noumenal baggage of the world, but a proposal from within a theory on how to interpret our theories.) So I don't think there's something intrinsic to postmodern positions that makes postmodernism bad scholarship. All sorts of philosophers hold all sorts of wild positions because they can't see how to argue themsevles out of them. Postmodernism at its best either provides arguments for its extreme positions, or moderates its claims and provides arguments for the moderation.

But the problem is that most postmodernism is just rife with sloppy argumentation. A lot of people go from an unargued principle that we are situated, and presumably relying on a wishy-washy notion that we can revise scientific laws willy-nilly, end up with some sort of crazy conclusion that we can unsex physics (or whatever). When defending postmodernism, people often do two things: hold up well-argued or moderate postmodern views as exemplars, and suggest that all fields have their fair share of bad scholarship. But I think that really downplays the extent to which most postmodernism is bullshit -- the field has way more bullshit than other fields (as de Rose argues) -- and the obscure language often makes it very hard to tell what's bullshit and what's not. De Rose's post is an attack on the field as it is generally practiced, I take it, and that's an attack that I think is justified. These "straw men" really do exist, they're some of postmodernism's biggest proponents, they're clogging up departments all over the country, and they've given postmodernism its bad name in the public eye.
posted by painquale at 11:28 AM on October 26, 2005

Well. I think of it as the natural process of intellectual dialectic. Eventually the morons will be shook out by virtue of their stupidity, and we'll start to develop a decent canon, and so forth. Like I said, at least the pomo hacks are just harmless intellectuals in universities. The negative real-world consequences of social constructivism are, it seems, relatively minimal. We're on our way. :)

Incidentally, it's too bad some of y'all missed out on this discussion on existentialism and Foucault. Personally, I think of myself as being a Foucauldian before all else, which may help contextualize my comments on this thread.

At any rate, I'm bookmarking this now that it seems we're done. Thanks, all.
posted by spiderwire at 2:14 PM on October 26, 2005

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